All posts on September, 2015

Newborns’ Gut Microbes Signal Asthma Risk Later in Life

In the last 30 years, the number of people with asthma has risen sharply in Western countries like the U.S. and Canada. Today, it’s the most common pediatric disease in the developed world, affecting over 300 million people worldwide – and now researchers say it may be influenced by four bacteria that live in our intestines.

Asthma is an immune-mediated illness, which means that it happens because something is wrong with the body’s normal immune response, but doctors aren’t entirely sure

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dietary supplementsHealthosteoporosis

More evidence that raising calcium consumption doesn’t help bones

calcium supplement

Calcium supplementation is not without health risks, including serious ones.

Consuming more calcium, either through dietary sources or through supplements, does not significantly increase bone density or prevent bone fractures in either men or women aged 50 and older, according to two new major review studies published Tuesday in The BMJ.

These new findings support the 2013 recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that older people not take daily calcium (or vitamin D) supplements to prevent bone fractures. That group of independent experts also said that the scientific evidence did not support such supplementation.

Despite the growing evidence against calcium supplementation, some groups continue to encourage older people to increase their consumption of the mineral. Perhaps the most visible of these groups is the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), which recommends that women aged 51 to 70 and men aged 70 and older consume 1,200 milligrams (mg) of calcium and 800-1,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin D) daily — an amount few people can achieve without taking supplements.

Calcium supplementation is not without health risks, including serious ones. Clinical trials have found that taking calcium supplements at doses of 1,000 mg daily increases the risk of developing kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems severe enough to require hospitalization. Supplementation is also associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

In addition, recent research suggests that calcium supplements actually raise the risk of fracturing a hip.

No increase in bone density

Both of the new studies were conducted by the same team of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. 

For one of the studies, the researchers analyzed data from 59 randomized controlled trials that had examined the effect of extra calcium intake, both from dietary sources and supplements, on bone mineral density in men and women aged 50 or older. (Randomized trials are considered the “gold standard” for this kind of research.)

The data revealed that increasing calcium intake — whether by taking supplements or by eating more milk, yogurt or other calcium-rich foods — improved bone mineral density by a meager 1-2 percent over five years. 

Those “small effects … are unlikely to translate into clinically meaningful reductions in fractures,” the researchers conclude. “Therefore, for most individuals concerned about their bone density, increasing calcium intake is unlikely to be beneficial.”

No effect on fracture risk

In the second study, the scientists searched through all previous research on the effect of calcium intake on lowering the risk of bone fractures. They found too few randomized controlled trials to draw conclusions from, so they included observational studies in their analysis as well.

They discovered no association between dietary calcium intake and the risk of bone fractures. As for calcium supplementation, they found it appeared to have a small but inconsistent effect on reducing bone fractures — an effect, however, that was not enough to overcome the health risks associated with supplements.

Only one study, published in 1992, found a clear association between calcium supplementation and a reduced risk of bone fractures. But that study involved elderly women (mean age: 84) who lived in nursing homes. Those women were consuming very low levels of calcium and vitamin D in the nursing homes — and had very low concentrations of calcium in their blood.

Yet that study is often cited (without the specifics) by proponents of calcium supplementation as a reason why everybody needs to consume more of the mineral.

‘Follow the money’

“The evidence currently available … gives us a strong signal that calcium supplements with or without vitamin D do not protect older people in general from fractures,” writes Dr. Karl Michaelsson, a professor of surgical orthopedics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, in a commentary that accompanies the two new studies in The BMJ.

That makes the continued emphasis on supplementation by organizations such as the National Osteoporosis Foundation “puzzling,” he adds.

Or maybe not so puzzling. As reported in an analysis published earlier this year (by two of the New Zealand researchers who worked on the new BMJ studies), many osteoporosis advocacy organizations around the world — including the National Osteoporosis Foundation here in the U.S. — receive substantial funding from supplement manufacturers and other nutrition-related companies.

“The profitability of the global supplements industry probably plays its part, encouraged by key opinion leaders from the academic and research communities,” writes Michaelsson. “Manufacturers have deep pockets, and there is a tendency for research efforts to follow the money (with accompanying academic prestige), rather than a path defined only by the needs of patients and the public. The research agenda and recommendations can also be influenced by the conflicts of interest that arise when leading academics have shares or management positions in companies making and marketing supplements.” 

You can read both of the new studies (here and here) and Michaelsson’s commentary on The BMJ website.

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Higher Education

Student Parent HELP Center helps U’s undergraduate parents handle stress — and graduate

College is stressful. Raising children is stressful. Combine the two, and a person’s stress levels can be off the charts.

“Sometimes, when I was juggling school and work and kids, I would just break down and cry,” recalled Sonyna Castillo, who gave birth to three children while earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota. Her children’s father works out of state for several months of each year, so she often parented alone. “By the time I was pregnant with my third child, it was overwhelming. I remember being so exhausted that I started taking it out on my kids.”

Today, Castillo, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in family social science, works as an office specialist for the university’s President’s Emerging Scholars Program, but during the exhausting days when she was going to school full time, working 30 hours a week and raising her family, she needed all the support she could get. That support came from the university’s Student Parent HELP Center, a program that began in 1967 as  Higher Education for Low Income People, part of the university’s General College. In 1984, the program evolved into a parent-only assistance program to help undergraduate students with children complete their degrees.    

“Our goal is to be here for student parents, to be a place where they can get the support and assistance they need,” said Susan Warfield, Student Parent HELP Center director. “We are often the first place that student parents come if they are having emotional or mental health issues because of the strong community we create for them. They feel safe here.”

Even during her most stressful periods, Castillo never harmed her children, but there were moments when HELP center staff counseled her through tough times.

“They understood what I was going through,” she said. “The extra support and listening time was important. I was a good student, but I wanted to be a good parent, too. It was stressful. The HELP Center helped me figure out how to be both a good mom and a good student.”

‘Just like me’

Located in Appleby Hall on the university’s East Bank, the HELP Center has a study lounge, a meeting space, a kitchenette and a computer lab. Students drop by to do homework, print papers (printing for is free for school or family business), seek assistance from center staff or attend weekly Parents As Student Support group (PASS) meetings.

The meetings are popular, drawing as many as 20 student parents each week for a free lunch and a discussion of parenting topics. Meeting other student parents is invaluable, Warfield said, because undergraduates with children often feel isolated among their more carefree, childless peers. Student parents build strong bonds through shared experiences and common challenges.

“Students say the PASS group is the one of the most valuable things we offer,” Warfield said. “This is a group of moms and dads who are also university students. They are so busy that they literally think of themselves last. Recently, a student mom told us, ‘I’m so busy and stressed. This is the only time I eat lunch all week.’”

Castillo didn’t know about the Student Parent HELP center during her first pregnancy, but she learned about it through a staff member at Circle of Indigenous Nations, a support organization for American Indian students, when she was pregnant with her second child. Castillo jumped at the chance to meet other undergrads with kids.

“It was amazing,” she said. “When I visited the HELP Center, I saw all the resources that were there for me. I saw other students that were like me, that had kids and were going to work and were pregnant just like me.” Going to her first PASS group, Castillo said, “was a sigh of relief. I found out that I wasn’t the only one at home with kids and homework and work and cooking dinner for kids that didn’t want to eat it. It was great.”

At PASS, Castillo met other student parents who were focused on finishing their degrees — despite significant challenges. If they could do it, then so could she.


That kind of unique support and bonding is key for the HELP Center’s student population, which leans heavily toward first-generation college students, a group that often faces significant roadblocks to completing an undergraduate degree.

A HELP Center student's child wearing a Goldy Gopher costume.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
A HELP Center student’s child wearing a Goldy Gopher

Unlike students who live in residence halls and stay up late bonding with their roommates, HELP Center students are more likely to be up late with fussy children and to live off campus with their families and partners.

The center’s large space is prime real estate on the U’s busy Minneapolis campus, and most days several students are there, studying, taking a break on one of the center’s comfortable couches while their children occupy themselves in the play area, or just spending time talking to staff. 

“When a student is having a bad day, when nothing is going right, they’re able to come in and we can spend an hour talking to them,” Warfield said. “I’ve held students’ hands while they’ve cried. I talked to them and encouraged them. If they are dealing with a financial issue, we can offer them an emergency assistance grant. That can lift the stress off their shoulders.”  When students are having a hard time putting food on the table or buying diapers, the center also has a stash of gift cards for Cub Foods or Target.

Warfield puts it this way: “We offer three things: cash, community and couches.” 

Benefits extend to the children

Is offering cash, community and couches worth it? Warfield thinks so. Research shows that economic assistance and providing a community of like peers are needed to retain and graduate student parents. She said that she and other center staff see their work as extending beyond the educational success of the student parents they serve to their overall welfare of their children.

“If you look at any markers of a child’s life, it is all greatly influenced by the educational success of the parents, and the mother in particular,” Warfield said. “When a mother completes college, her child will be living in a better neighborhood, attending a better school and be more likely to go to college themselves. I have seen our students come in and struggle. But I’ve also seen them graduate. They’ve kept in touch and they’ll say, ‘We are buying our first home’ or coming back for grad school or starting a business. That’s just what we are hoping for.”

Every fall, a group of HELP Center student parents and their children march in the university’s homecoming parade. People are always happy to see a gaggle of cute kids dressed in Goldy costumes accompanied by their proud parents. While Warfield appreciates the happy, family-friendly feeling created by their participation in the event, she also likes to think that it serves a larger, more important purpose.

“By being out there and being part of the campus culture, we are also exposing that second generation to the idea that this is their university, that like their parents, they will go to college one day.”

More than anyone, Castillo understands the important message her college success sends to her children.

“When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to go to college, but I always thought they had no right to pressure me because they didn’t go to college themselves,” she said. “When I had my kids, my dad never thought I’d finish school. He was so disappointed. But I did it. When I graduated, I took a picture of my three kids and I held it up when I crossed the stage. I said, ‘I told you I could do it and I did.’ ” 

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Citizen Science at the White House

This past Wednesday, Pope Francis visited the White House. This Wednesday, it’s my turn.

Although I won’t be welcomed by throngs of people, the under-tapped capabilities of throngs of people is the reason I’ll be there, along with two others from SciStarter: Darlene Cavalier and Hined Rafeh. In a gathering lower key than the pontiff’s, we will be joining government officials for a closer look into what citizen science can do for our country.

The event is a citizen science forum hosted by t

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Tetanus, the Grinning Death

Infectious diseases have long been the companions of war and natural disaster. For those that barely escaped death in the calamities of antiquity, walking away with what appeared to be a light injury, the agony of a gangrenous wound or convulsive, back-breaking muscle spasms would deal an impending final blow. For centuries, a dreaded complication from an innocent blister or a bullet wound was the untreatable and catastrophic tetanus, caused by Clostridium tetani.

Clostridium tetani resid

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How Sheep Are like an Avalanche

Sheep are rarely dangerous to skiers, but otherwise they have a lot in common with avalanches. That’s what physicists say after mathematically modeling the ungulates’ behavior (and staying well out of their path).

Francesco Ginelli, who researches complex systems at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, had already studied flocks of birds and schools of fish. But he was curious to learn what was different about the movement of sheep or other grazers. Animals like these have a simple goa

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Healthmental health

The story of Geel, a model of community-based mental health care for centuries

Chronic Crisis: A look at Geel and its centuries-old tradition of caring for those with mental illness

The remarkable story of Geel, the Belgian town that for more than 700 years has welcomed people with mental disabilities and illnesses into their homes as “boarders,” is the focus of an article in the September issue of The Psychologist, the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society.

Geel has been featured in the press repeatedly over the years, but its story is worth telling again for those who may not have heard it before.

The town is believed by many to be a model of community-based care.

“Among the people of Geel, the term ‘mentally ill’ is never heard: even words such as ‘psychiatric’ and ‘patient’ are carefully hedged with finger-waggling and scare quotes,” writes journalist and cultural historian Mike Jay (with British spellings and punctuation). “The family care system, as it’s known, is resolute non-medical. When boarders meet their new families, they do so, as they always have, without a backstory or clinical diagnosis. If a word is needed to describe them, it’s often a positive one such as ‘special’, or at worst, ‘different’. … But the most common collective term is simply ‘boarders’, which defines them at the most pragmatic level by their social, not mental, condition. These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them.” 

A legendary beginning

Geel’s history as a welcoming place for people with mental disabilities and illnesses can be traced back to a legend — that of the 7th-century Irish princess Dymphna, who fled to Geel to escape the incestuous advances of her father. Once there, she built a refuge for the poor and sick. But Dymphna’s father tracked her down, and, when she continued to refuse him, beheaded her.

“Over time, she became revered as a saint with powers of intercession for the mentally afflicted, and her shrine [in Geel] attracted pilgrims and tales of miraculous cures,” writes Jay. A church was built near the shrine, and, in 1480, a building was added to house the steady stream of pilgrims who came to visit the site. 

“During the Renaissance, Geel became famous as a place of sanctuary for the mad, who arrived and stayed for reasons both spiritual and opportunistic,” says Jay. “Some pilgrims came in hope of a cure. In other cases, it seems that families from local villages took the chance to abandon troublesome relatives whom they couldn’t afford to keep. The people of Geel absorbed them all as an act of charity and Christian piety, but also put them to work as free labour on their farms.” 

The system today is much the same, although without the heavy farm work. Writes Jay:

A boarder is treated as a member of the family: involved in everything, and particularly encouraged to form a strong bond with the children, a relationship that is seen as beneficial to both parties. The boarder’s conduct is expected to meet the same basic standards as everybody else’s though it’s also understood that he or she might not have the same coping resources as others. Odd behaviour is ignored where possible, and when necessary dealt with discreetly.

Those who meet these standards are ‘good’; others can be described as ‘difficult’, but never ‘bad’, ‘dumb’ or ‘crazy’. Boarders who are unable to cope on this basis will be readmitted to the hospital [built in the 1800s]: this is inevitably seen as a punishment, and everyone hopes the stay ‘inside’ will be as brief as possible.

The people of Geel don’t regard any of this as therapy; it’s simply ‘family care’.

The government steps in

Not that there haven’t been problems over the years with this system, including the mistreatment of boarders. In fact, reports of boarders being chained and beaten caused the Belgium government to take over the program from the church in 1850.

“Families got a modest state payment [today it’s about $55 a day], in return for which they had to submit to inspection and regulation by the medical authorities,” explains Jay. And in 1861, government authorities built a special hospital in Geel, where boarders could be assessed before being placed with families in the town.

“The reformed system became a source of great professional and local pride,” Jay says. “Doctors and psychiatrists from across Europe and American came on fact-finding missions. Dozens of town in Belgium, France and Germany established their own versions of the ‘Geel system’, some of which still survive.”

By the late 1930s, Jay reports, the town had about 4,000 boarders among its native population of 16,000.

A fading tradition

“In recent decades,” writes Jay, “the ‘two-layered system’ — family care supported by a medical safety net — has been constantly recalibrated to reflect developments in psychiatry.”

“Today,” he says, “there are around 300 boarders in Geel; less than a tenth of its pre-war peak and fading fast. While many locals believe family care will endure, it has become a markedly smaller part of town life, and others suspect that this generation will be the last to maintain it.”

The reasons for this change “is not demand but supply,” Jay explains. “Few families are now able to willing to take on a boarder. Few now work the land or need help with manual labour; these days most are employed in the thriving business parks outside town, working for mulinationals such as Estee Lauder and BP. [And] dual-income households and apartment-living mean that most families can no longer offer care in the old-fashioned way.”

The decline of Geel’s centuries-old system of community care for people with mental illnesses and disabilities can be seen in a positive light, “as a reflection of modern improvements,” Jay suggests. “Psychiatry has met the town halfway; the choice is no longer limited to the stark alternative of Geel or the horrors of the asylum. Care in the community, of which the town was once the leading example, has become the norm.”

Yet, if Geel’s remarkable system of community care disappears, it’s difficult not to view that outcome as a great loss.

“People remain proud of the tradition, and credit it with giving Geel a broad-minded and tolerant ethos, one that has made it attractive to international businesses and visitor,” writes Jay. “But the town is no exception of the march of modernity and the irreversibly loosening social ties that come in its wake.”

You can read Jay’s article on The Psychologist’s website or on the website of the online magazine Aeon, where it first appeared. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also ran a piece on Geel in 2013. It includes a very moving five-minute video that profiles one middle-aged couple and their two boarders.

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Watch Out For Joaquin

| Please see updates and a correction below |

A tropical depression that formed Sunday in the Atlantic has strengthened into a tropical storm that could bring a lot of rain to parts of the U.S. East Coast later this week — possibly on top of a big rainfall event that’s already cranking up for the northern Appalachians and New England over the next several days.

Click on the image above and say hi to Tropical Storm Joaquin.

The forecast for Joaquin is highly uncertain at the moment,

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Spectacular Imagery Reveals Traces Believed to Come From Liquid Water Flowing on Today’s Mars

If you’ve paid attention to the news at all today, you’ve probably heard about the compelling new evidence that liquid water flows on Mars — present tense.

The news has gotten a lot of coverage today. Among the best is a post by Cory Powell, my fellow blogger here at Discover. You can find his excellent summary of the science, and why it is significant, right here.

I decided to dedicate my post to spectacular imagery, including the dramatic image above.

You’re looking at Horowitz Cr

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Is working past 65 good for your health? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Working past age 65 is associated with better health, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors, such as education and income, or health behaviors, such as smoking, according to a study published late last week in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Ah, as someone who has just reached Medicare age and intends to keep working, this is a finding that warms the cockles (or cochlea cordis) of my still-healthy (knock on wood and keep biking) heart.

But, alas, once I started reading the study, I realized it does not — cannot — prove that working past 65 is good for our health. For the study’s findings come with some major caveats, as the authors themselves acknowledge.

In fact, the study offers a great lesson on the perils of putting too much weight on the findings from any observational study.

Study details

First, though, let’s look at how the study was done and what it found.

For the study, researchers at the University of Miami turned to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which conducts annual face-to-face interviews with Americans of all ages on various health-related topics. They used data from a representative sample of more than 83,000 adults aged 65 or older who participated in the NHIS interviews during a 15-year period (1997-2011). The mean age of this sample group was 74.6 years. More than half (57 percent) were women, and most (82 percent) were white.

Slightly more than 87 percent of those 83,000 older people reported that they were either retired or unemployed. Of those who were still employed, two-thirds had white-collar jobs, while the rest were almost equally distributed between blue-collar and service jobs. A very small percentage worked on a farm.

After crunching the data, the researchers found that “[b]eing unemployed/retired was associated with the greatest risk of poor health across all health status measures, even after controlling for smoking status, obesity, and other predictors of health.”

In fact, the people in the study who had kept working after age 65 were almost three times more likely to report being in good health than those who had retired.

An unexpected finding

Interestingly, blue-collar workers who were still employed were about 15 percent less likely to report having multiple chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, than their white-collar peers.

“For older adults in more physically demanding occupations (such as service and blue collar) there might be a stronger healthy worker effect,” the study’s authors suggest. “As a result, healthier individuals are more likely to continue working, while those in poorer health are more likely to either exit the workforce or shift into less physically demanding white collar occupations.”

Other factors may also be involved. “For workers in jobs of lower socioeconomic status, employment can have stronger beneficial effect on health by increasing social support and income and by providing access to more comprehensive health insurance coverage,” the researchers add.


Now for the caveats. As an observational study, this one can demonstrate only a correlation between two things — in this case between working past age 65 and better health — not a cause-and-effect. 

The authors themselves make that point. “This study used pooled cross-sectional data, and therefore causal inferences cannot be made,” they write.

A perfectly reasonable explanation for the study’s findings could be, of course, that people who are in poor health drop out of the work force by the time they reach 65.

Another major caveat: The participants in the study provided the information about their own health status. Relying on self-reports of people’s health (and of their health-related behaviors) is always a limiting factor in a study. Such reports may — or may not — be accurate.

An expanding segment of U.S. work force

Still, whether or not working past age 65 is good for our health, more of us are going to be doing it. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that 22 percent of the U.S. workforce will be aged 65 or older by 2022. 

“Older workers are a valuable addition to the workplace because they are on average just as productive as, are more careful and emotionally stable than, and have lower rates of absenteeism than their younger counterparts,” the study’s authors write.

Now there’s a conclusion that definitely warms my heart.

You can read the study in full on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Preventing Chronic Disease is an electronic journal published by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Promotion.

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National Science Foundation Grant Enables Arizona State University to Develop SciStarter 2.0 to Advance Citizen Science

The National Science Foundation has just awarded a $300,000 Pathways grant to Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society for the development of SciStarter 2.0. The grant will advance the growing field of citizen and community science, which enables everyday people to contribute to authentic research.

SciStarter 2.0 Creates an Identity Management System for Citizen Scientists

SciStarter, which aggregates more than 1000 citizen science projects o

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disabilitiesHealthpregnancyWomen's Health

One in 10 pregnant women in U.S. report drinking alcohol, CDC finds

Creative Commons/Thomas van Ardenne
Alcohol use during pregnancy is a serious matter, raising the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

One in 10 pregnant women in the United States have consumed alcohol within the previous month, and 1 in 33 have engaged in at least one episode of binge drinking during that same period, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study also found that pregnant women who binge drink — defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion — tend to do so more frequently than women who are not pregnant.

These findings, published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), are discouraging, to say the least. U.S. government officials have set a public health goal of reducing the proportion of pregnant women who consume alcohol to less than 2 percent by the year 2020. That goal also includes eliminating binge drinking among pregnant women.

We remain quite a distance from that goal.

Alcohol use during pregnancy is a serious matter, raising the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. It also raises the risk that the baby will be born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), an umbrella term for a group of conditions that can cause physical, behavioral and learning problems. It’s estimated that up to 5 percent of first-grade students in the United States have an FASD. 

The CDC and other major health organizations advise women not to drink any kind of alcohol while pregnant — or while trying to get pregnant. Research has not identified a guaranteed safe level of alcohol during pregnancy; thus, it’s safest to avoid it altogether.

Study details

Data for the new study came from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), an ongoing series of health-related telephone (cell and landline) surveys. This particular set of data was collected from random surveys of 200,000 women of childbearing age (18 to 44 years) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Of those women, 8,383 said they were pregnant.

The data revealed that 10.2 percent of the pregnant women surveyed reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days, compared to 53.6 percent of the non-pregnant women.

As for binge drinking, 3.1 percent of the pregnant women reported doing so within the previous month, compared to 18.2 percent of the pregnant women.

Although the numbers associated with pregnant women (as well as with non-pregnant women who are binge drinking) are concerning, they do indicate an overall awareness that alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy.

The data also revealed, however, that among binge drinkers, pregnant women reported engaging in such episodes more frequently than did non-pregnant women — an average of 4.6 versus 3.1 episodes within the past 30 days. They also tended to consume more alcoholic beverages during each of those episodes — an average of 7.5 versus 6.0 drinks.

The CDC researchers say these numbers suggest that women who are unable to give up alcohol during pregnancy may be more likely than their peers to have an alcohol-dependency problem.

The study also found that, among pregnant women, alcohol use was highest among women aged 35-44 (18.6 percent), college graduates (13 percent) and unmarried women (12.9 percent). 

Difficult to determine a trend

Several years ago, a CDC report that used BRFSS data from 2006-2010 found that 7.6 percent of pregnant women had consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days and 1.4 percent had engaged in binge drinking.

So are we sliding backward in our attempts to discourage pregnant women from drinking?

Not necessary. The trend behind the numbers released in this latest CDC report are difficult to interpret because the methodology for collecting the statistics have changed, said Emily Gunderson, communications director for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS), in an interview with MinnPost. 

The increased rates of pregnancy-related drinking uncovered in the latest report may reflect that change in methodology rather than changes in pregnant women’s behavior.

“We put a lot of our effort into educating women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy,” said Gunderson. “Unfortunately, it’s really hard to measure whether they change their behavior. 

“I don’t have any good statistical backup,” she added, “but I know from anecdotal evidence that women seem to have more information and are better educated about the risks about drinking during pregnancy than they were a decade ago.”

The extent of the problem in Minnesota is difficult to know, partly because the state has no surveillance system for tracking babies born with FASDs, Gunderson said.

“We do know, based on national data, that about 5,300 babies born in Minnesota every year have been exposed prenatally,” she said. “That’s about 100 babies born each a week who are at higher risk of having a FASD.”

You can read the CDC report on the agency’s website. For more information about drinking and pregnancy — and about resources available for Minnesota families raising a child with a FASD disability — go to the MOFAS website.

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adult mental healthveterans

Paul Riedner: Helping veterans recover from trauma of war gives life ‘meaning and purpose’

Paul Riedner

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Paul Riedner

Back in 2006, when Paul Riedner enlisted in the U.S. Army as a deep-sea diver, he was an idealistic young man looking for adventure. Today, nearly 10 years later, he’s a slightly less young 37, but still idealistic and adventure-seeking, just in a different way. His four years of active duty in the United States and the Middle East changed his perspective on life and his goals for the future.

While Riedner, who holds a degree in economics from Carleton College and an MBA from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, left the Army without significant physical injury, he did feel the acute stress of reintegration into the civilian world and the burden of living a life of meaning and character.

“Since being in the military, my conscience weighs on me,” Riedner said. “It allows me or doesn’t allow me to do certain things, and even though I have the education and skill set to go out and get a regular job and make some money, I just can’t do that right now. My conscience tells me I have to have meaning and purpose in everything I do.”

This August, Riedner found both when he accepted the position of executive director of Veteran Resilience Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Minnesota veterans get free access to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a treatment that has been shown to be effective in helping veterans recover from the psychological trauma of war.

Access to EMDR therapy is key, Riedner believes, because suicide rates among Minnesota National Guard veterans are among the highest in the nation. He wants to save veterans’ lives.

For the last two months, Riedner has been working without a salary. His focus has been on grant writing, on finding sources of funding for his organization. He’s also been building connections in the veteran community, seeking ways to let veterans around the state know about the benefits of EMDR.

Last week, Riedner launched a crowdfunding campaign for Veteran Resilience Project with the goal of raising $15,000 to fund the organization and his plans to travel the state, meeting veterans and asking them to share their stories to publicize Veteran Resilience Project’s services. The campaign’s deadline is Oct. 9.

I spoke with Riedner earlier this week at Veteran Resilience Project’s headquarters, a shared office space in the Intermedia Arts building on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.

MinnPost: What will the crowdfunding money be used for?

Paul Riedner: The money we collect will pay my salary so I can do the long-term fundraising for Veteran Resilience Project. We are in the process of writing grant proposals to places like Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans, Minnesota DHS and a number of other funders.

The money will also help fund my travels around the state of Minnesota, where I will interview resilient veterans, meet veteran-service organizations and create audio programs that I will distribute online and to local and statewide radio networks. The idea is that I will interview and highlight stories of thriving veterans. I’ll ask them questions about what’s changed since they reintegrated into civilian life, what struggles they faced in the process and what their service means to them today.  I’ll also ask how they find strength and what support organizations they find the most useful.

MP: Have you identified any of the veterans you’ll be interviewing for this project?

PR: In order to find our subjects, we need to earn the trust of the people in the community. I think it will help that Veteran Resilience Project was created by veterans. I’m a veteran, too. I’m hoping that will give us a leg up to making those connections.

I’m still in the early stages of identifying potential interview subjects. There’s this veteran I’d really like to interview. He lives up North. His name is JJ. Every once in a while, he’ll gather up a bunch of veterans, women, men, guys from every era and from all backgrounds. He brings them out to the shooting range. They just get together. He doesn’t have his own organization. It’s not a VFW thing. I’ve been told he’s doing more for veterans in his area than a lot of official veterans’ organizations are. Through the strength of his personality, he’s transcending barriers. I want to tell his story, and I hope it will inspire others to get help.

MP: How will these profiles be distributed?

PR: We’re hoping to share these stories on radio stations around the state. We’re also going to do podcasts. I’m reaching out to radio stations and networks, and I will produce pieces that will fit for them, depending on what sort of programming needs they have. If they have 10 spare minutes, I can do that. If it’s five, I can do that, too.

The idea is that we’ll get veterans and their loved ones listening through these stories, and then we’ll let them know about Veteran Resilience Project and what we have to offer. Though the public mostly hears about veterans who are struggling, there are a lot of veterans out there doing amazing things. We want to hold them up and then show the community how post-traumatic stress can be turned into post-traumatic growth.

MP: And you believe that one way to do that is through therapies like EMDR, right?

PR: Yes. Our goal at Veteran Resilience Project is to offer this therapy free of charge to any Minnesota veteran who’s struggling with any re-integration issue. The list of conditions that EMDR helps include PTSD, combat stress, military sexual trauma, moral injury and any of the previous-era definitions of those things. We want to treat and heal the trauma.

MP: Can you tell me more about what the term “moral injury” means?

PR: Moral injury occurs when an individual is forced to make decisions that test their moral code. Going to war can be a moral injury in itself. We teach our kids that killing’s wrong, but then we ask a soldier to go and kill. This breaks down the individual’s sense of self. Moral injury doesn’t only happen in combat. It can come from a shift in perspective. For instance, some guys thought we were in Iraq for one reason and then, through their combat experiences, they came to a different explanation. When that happens in midst of your military brothers and sisters going through hell, that puts a big toll on your sense of the morality of what you are doing. It is an intense realization.

MP: So it’s an injury to a person’s moral code?

PR: Yeah. It’s a sense-of-self thing. Shame is huge in moral injury. An individual soldier may believe that there is something wrong with them because maybe they did or didn’t do something that they now look back at and feel shame about. Guilt is better than shame because guilt is, “I did something wrong,” whereas shame is, “I am wrong.”

EMDR deals with shame in a pretty unique way. It’s one of the therapies I think really does get to the core of the issue. Shame thrives when people are isolated and are not connecting with loved ones and others. It compounds anything a veteran is dealing with, whether it is a physical injury or PTSD. Treating shame can help clear the way for other healing.

MP: Can you tell me a little bit about EMDR and how it works?

PR: It is a therapy developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro. She was on a walk in a park and she was thinking about an upsetting memory. She noticed that the memory became less upsetting when she was walking, through the bilateral stimulation of right foot then left foot then right foot then left foot. That’s a simplified version of what happened, but it really was sort of an accident. Later, she researched the effects and started using EMDR on her patients. That was in the 1980s. The most traditional way doing EMDR is watching a finger from the left side of your field of vision to the right side of your field of vision while you think back on an experience or talk about an upsetting memory. Trauma locks up your brain. EMDR engages a different part of your body while you are observing the experience.

MP: How does this help a person move beyond trauma?

PR: It reprocesses the event, which has become frozen in time. In my understanding, the eye movement is similar to the eye movement we experience in sleep, during REM. During that period of the sleep cycle, the brain integrates information, puts it into the proper place and files it away. But trauma doesn’t get processed and filed away. EMDR creates a space where the brain can process the information, the feelings and the emotions in a healthy way. Then the person can find what’s useful in the experience and discard what’s not. During an EMDR session, the therapist and the client talk through what the body is experiencing when they are in this memory. Then they go through different sets of eye movements, and then the therapist asks the client again, “What did you experience?” And it will bring back insights and thoughts that they didn’t have before. Through this interaction with a therapist, a veteran learns make positive associations with that event and what it means in their life.

MP: So there’s been research backing up the idea that EMDR has been particularly helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD?

PR: There has been a lot of research on EMDR and veterans, but I am not well versed in the results. In 2014, Veteran Resilience Project conducted a pilot study with 27 veterans. We had an effectiveness rating of 73.5 percent.

MP: Does the VA use EMDR for veterans?

PR: There may be isolated instances of EMDR research and treatment among particular VA medical centers around the country, but it is not happening in Minneapolis.

MP: You told me that the Minnesota National Guard has the highest suicide rate in the country of any national guard.  Why is that?

PR: Nobody knows. This is a large group of Minnesotans who have been in service over the last 15 years. Since 2001, our National Guard has sent nearly 50,000 National Guardsmen to Iraq and Afghanistan. It has taken a toll.

MP: 50,000 soldiers just from Minnesota?

PR: Yes, just from Minnesota. The Minnesota National Guard has one of the highest rates of deployment of all National Guards in the country.

MP: So you are saying the higher suicide rate among Minnesota National Guard members may be partially because so many Minnesotans have been deployed?

PR: They’ve really been put to task. They had one of the longest deployments on record when their tour got extended while they were in Iraq. So many Minnesotans have served in this war.

MP: You’re inching in on your crowdfunding goal. You’re not asking for that much money, just $15,000. That seems totally achievable.

PR: Money is only part of our goal. What we really need to do most of all is to reach the veterans who need us. We need to identify veterans to interview, and we need to let them know that help is available in the form of EMDR therapy. We need to get to the eyes and ears of people who know a veteran who is struggling. We need to connect with veterans so we can help them. We need to save lives. 

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